Larger Customers Share How To Hack The Anxiety Of Eating At A Restaurant

Body acceptance coaches give their tips on resolving both practical matters (like seating logistics) and emotional struggles (like ordering while fearing judgment).

Going to a restaurant is often the de facto plan when it comes to celebrating a special occasion or catching up with friends. Other times, it’s not even that deep: Maybe you’re simply hungry and don’t want to cook or you want to treat yourself to something delicious. Whatever the reason, while some people make plans to eat out without a second thought, for people who are larger-bodied, the idea of going to a restaurant can be anxiety-provoking.

Not every restaurant is designed with all bodies in mind. A larger-bodied person may worry that the seats won’t accommodate them or that they won’t be able to use the restroom. Practical matters aside, there can be emotional obstacles to overcome, too. Will ordering a salad provoke unwanted praise or verbal pats on the back from the other people around the table? Will ordering dessert raise eyebrows?

“Unfortunately, being able to eat in a restaurant comfortably if you are larger-bodied places so much emotional labor on the person who is already marginalized,” said Sophia Apostol, a body liberation coach and the host of the “Fat Joy” podcast. To her point, if you are a larger-bodied person who was invited out to eat, it will often be up to you to ensure you’ll be as comfortable as possible eating at the restaurant because others may not be aware of or considerate of your challenges. In a perfect world (or at least a more welcoming one), the person organizing the meal would keep in mind the needs of everyone they’re inviting, similar to if a friend has a gluten allergy or is in a wheelchair, Apostol said.

With all this in mind, everyone should keep the below tips in mind to help larger-bodied people feel more comfortable eating out.

1. Find Out What The Seating Is Like

Not all restaurants are designed in a way that’s welcoming to larger-bodied people. Tiana Dodson, a body liberation facilitator and host of “The Live Your Best Fat Life Podcast,” said that some larger-bodied people may struggle to sit comfortably in the restaurant’s seating. Booths with immovable tables and chairs with arms can particularly be problematic.

Whether you are the larger-bodied person or the one doing the inviting, Dodson recommended heading to the restaurant’s website, Instagram or Yelp page to check out photos of the seating. She pointed out that many diners have posted photos of the restaurant’s ambiance, which can be helpful for this. (Pro tip: Check out the tagged photos of the restaurant on Instagram if its own profile just shows photos of the food.)

If you are the person planning the meal and you can see that the tables are super close together and the seating looks restrictive, that’s an indicator that not everyone you invite may feel welcome or comfortable there. If you’re researching for yourself and can tell the seating won’t work for you, there are a few different options you can do next. “First, you can talk to the person organizing the event and ask to switch to a different venue,” Apostol said. She recommended having another option in mind to suggest.

Apostol acknowledged that this isn’t an easy conversation for everyone to have. “It can be really hard because we’ve been taught by diet and wellness culture that fatness means there’s something wrong with us,” she explained. For this reason, she said that if having the conversation would cause you further emotional harm, you don’t have to do it. “You can choose not to go to the [outing] and I want to validate that choice because you have to focus on taking care of yourself and sometimes that is the only option that will work for your level of [emotional] resourcefulness in that moment,” she said.

Dodson said another option is bringing your own chair that you know will work and keeping it in the trunk of your car, if that is something that is accessible to you. Last, she said you can call the restaurant and explain to them what you need, asking if they can accommodate you. After all, it’s their job to make customers feel comfortable.

“It can be really hard because we’ve been taught by diet and wellness culture that fatness means there’s something wrong with us.”

Like Apostol, she acknowledged that both of these options require emotional work. “To be honest, there are a lot of days I simply won’t do something because there are too many decisions on too many little things I have to think about or too many things I have to do to prepare,” she said. Ultimately, both Apostol and Dodson said people should do whatever they feel most emotionally comfortable doing.

2. Ask About The Bathroom

Apostol pointed out that while many people post photos of a restaurant’s ambiance, not many people show what the bathroom looks like. Because of this, Apostol said figuring out the accessibility of the bathroom often requires calling the restaurant. Like with seating, this is preferably something the person organizing the outing will do, but a larger-bodied person can also make the call.

“It can be really exhausting explaining your existence, so [people in larger bodies] need to give themselves full permission to do whatever it takes to reduce the harm and stress we experience,” Apostol said. For example, if you don’t feel like explaining your body specifics to the restaurant host when you call, she suggested you could say something like, “If someone was on crutches or a wheelchair, would they easily be able to use the restroom?” Or, you could simply ask how big the restroom is.

If the restroom is inaccessible to you, Apostol suggested asking the organizer to change the venue or opting out of going to the outing, whichever option is more emotionally accessible to you in that moment.

3. Order What You Want, Which Can Simply Be What Causes You The Least Stress

It isn’t just the restaurant itself that can make eating out uncomfortable for a larger-bodied person. There are emotional burdens, too — particularly when it comes to figuring out what to order.

Fear of judgment can be a major anxiety trigger when deciding what to order.
NAZAR_AB VIA GETTY IMAGES/Fear of judgment can be a major anxiety trigger when deciding what to order.

“Ordering is so hard because no matter what you order, someone is [likely] going to judge you for it,” Dodson said. “If you order a delicious salad, someone may give you a pity pat on the back, which is just annoying. If you get a delicious burger and fries, someone may judge you thinking that’s why you’re fat in the first place.” For this reason, ordering is often not just about what you want; it’s also about what consequences you feel emotionally equipped to handle in the situation.

Virgie Tovar, a leading expert and educator on body weight discrimination and the author of “You Have the Right To Remain Fat,” explained that larger-bodied people should order whatever is going to make them feel the most comfortable and emotionally safe. She explained that sometimes, that means ordering whatever is least likely to be commented on — and that’s OK. “You don’t have to be brave,” she said.

Tovar said it’s helpful to look at the menu and figure out what to order in advance. “There are people who do this for other reasons too, such as because they have social anxiety or because they are recovering from an eating disorder. There can be anxiety around ordering for so many different people. You are not alone,” she said.

If ordering is a particular stress point for you, Tovar said it can be helpful to bring along something small that you find comforting that you can access discreetly at the restaurant. For example, it could be an essential oil that soothes you when you smell it.

Ordering what you want to eat confidently is a skill that requires practice, Tovar said. While she said it’s important to order whatever will cause the least emotional stress, she also suggested that to gain confidence, you should first try ordering what you want when you’re around people who you feel completely comfortable around, like your family or friends. Over time, it may become easier to order what you want in other social situations, like a work dinner or with a group of people you don’t know well. But she acknowledged that emotional fortitude ebbs and flows; some days, you may not feel up to ordering something that you’re worried others will judge you for, and that’s OK.

4. If A Judgy Comment Is Made, Respond However You Want (Or Not At All)

All three experts said that no one, regardless of anyone’s size, should comment on what someone has ordered. However, if someone does make a judgy comment, there are several ways to handle it. “It all comes down to what you are most comfortable doing,” Dodson said. “When someone makes a comment about food, it’s not about you; it’s about them.”

One option is to simply ignore the comment, Tovar said. Or to say, “Oh, I don’t talk about food that way,” and move the conversation right along. But if you want to give a sassy reply right back to the person, all three experts said you would be justified in doing so. “It’s up to you how you want to address it,” Dodson said.

It bears repeating that if you are a larger-bodied person, just the simple act of eating out can be emotionally draining. Apostol said that’s exactly why it’s important to remember you’re not alone. “Continue to explore the lies of diet culture by following fat activists online. There is a lot of community out there for you to find,” she said. “One of the worst things marginalized people can do is isolate themselves. You are not alone and whatever you are experiencing, others have experienced it too.”

Apostol also recommended people of every body size educate themselves by following anti-diet educators online and listening to their podcasts. (Her own podcast, as well as Dodson’s, are both good ones to start with, as well as the “Maintenance Phase” podcast, which Apostol recommended.)

With more thoughtfulness and understanding, everyone around the table will have a better time — no matter what their body size is.

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